Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 241–250 | Cite as

Defining and defending risk: conceptual risk formulas in environmental controversies

  • Alissa Cordner


Environmental risks are contested topics, and definitions of risk often vary across contexts, disciplines, and institutions. Identifying and describing differences between risk definitions is particularly important because they directly impact risk assessment and management practices. This paper describes how stakeholders rhetorically define and technically operationalize the risks of industrial chemicals, focusing on contemporary debates over flame retardant chemicals that in recent years have been the subject of numerous risk assessments, regulatory activities, and activist campaigns. This paper uses a multi-method approach to develop six conceptual risk formulas which delineate the components that go into evaluating risk and the relationships between those components: the classic risk formula, the emerging toxicology risk formula, the exposure-proxy risk formula, the exposure-centric risk formula, the hazard-centric risk formula, and the either-or risk formula. Using chemical alternatives assessment as an example, this analysis demonstrates how conceptual risk definitions influence the operationalization of risk assessment and management activities.


Risk definition Risk-based regulation Human and environmental health Flame retardant chemicals 



I would like to express my sincere thanks to all those I interviewed and with whom I spent time as part of this research. I would also like to thank Phil Brown, Timmons Roberts, Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Nitsan Chorev, and two anonymous reviewers who provided helpful comments on earlier iterations of this paper. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (SES-0924241) and the Environmental Protection Agency STAR Program (FP-917119). This work has not been reviewed by the funding agencies and may not represent their official positions.


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Copyright information

© AESS 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyWhitman CollegeWalla WallaUSA

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